Ten years ago last night, Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama went national with his keynote address at the ’04 Democratic convention — a charismatic Star is Born moment best remembered for a rhetorical flourish that was, quite frankly, preposterous.
Here’s the speech passage, in context. The key sentences are highlighted:
For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people…It is that fundamental belief – ‘I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper’ — that makes this country work…It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E pluribus unum,’ out of many, one.
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too…We are one people…
I was there that night in Boston, reporting and analyzing, and watching the besotted delegates. They were particularly mesmerized by that particular passage. Why, I have no idea. Perhaps it was the way Obama delivered the lines, pitch perfect. But at that moment, I couldn’t understand why his core assertion – that there was no liberal or conservative America, just the United States of America; that “the pundits” divide us into red and blue states – was driving people wild.
Because his assertion was nonsense. I was so underwhelmed, I didn’t even bother to write about it.
Granted, convention speeches are infamous for their hot air; granted, they’re often aimed at the heart, not the head. They typically conjure the nirvana America of our dreams, not the flawed America of everyday experience. But even if we were to cut Obama some rhetorical slack, his declaration was still patently absurd. Then and now, America was steeped in ideological and racial polarization. The only difference between then and now is that it has only gotten worse.
That night 10 years ago, when I heard Obama insist that there was no “liberal America” or “conservative America,” I just rolled my eyes. Who was this new guy kidding, anyway? In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won 81 percent of liberals, and George W. Bush won 82 percent of conservatives. Bush won 55 percent of whites, and only nine percent of blacks. Conservatives in 2004 were flocking to Fox News, and liberals were lining up to see Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 911.
And on the eve of the convention, working on a story in the Philadelphia suburbs, voters had told me that they’d never experienced such rancorous polarization (notably about the Iraq war, and the Bush administration generally). One guy, a semiretired engineer in Huntingdon Valley, told me that the red state/blue state conflict had even invaded his leisure time: “A bunch of us have a regular poker game, but we can’t even bring up the election anymore because folks are so hot about it, so diametrically opposed. One fellow, I bet I could talk to him for three weeks and never persuade him. And that’s how it is now.”
That’s how bad it was at the grassroots in 2004. It was not the creation of “pundits.”
Yes, Obama the newbie was talking about the America he’d like to see. But 10 years later, we all know about the America he’s got. In the 2012 election, Obama won 86 percent of liberals, and Mitt Romney won 82 percent of conservatives. Romney won 59 percent of whites, but only 27 percent of Hispanics and only six percent of blacks. The red and blue divide is even more entrenched. The racial divisions, as reflected in the electorate, are worse. The polarization on Capitol Hill has reached a point where both chambers seem barely functional. The House’s nutcase caucus is predictably talking impeachment.
We can (and do) argue ad nauseam about who deserves the blame – blue-state America says the polarization is mostly the GOP’s fault; red-state America says it’s mostly the president’s fault – but the endless finger-pointing is proof in itself of our ever-deepening divide. In fact, on this tenth anniversary, you have to wonder whether Obama regrets the lines that launched his national career. Because conjuring a Kumbaya America was truly the audacity of hope.
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